Banned words and flat adverbs

December 16, 2014

‘Banning’ words is not an impulse I can relate to. My recent post at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, The vogue for banning words, takes issue with this popular practice:

Lists of words to ban make effective clickbait, because people are very conscious of language usage and can be wary of having their own usage policed. So they want to find out what words and phrases they should be avoiding and collectively hating. Many will join in, sounding off about words they’d like to see banned. The logic seems to be that because they simply don’t like a word or phrase, no one should ever, ever use it.

It was once customary for language critics such as Fowler, Partridge, and Gowers to warn writers about ‘vogue words’ which had become too fashionable for their own good. Nowadays the convention – even at Time magazine – is for ‘banning’ them, whatever that might mean. I find it reactionary and unhelpful.

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My next post at Macmillan, Flat adverbs are exceeding fine, considers the status of adverbs like slow, far, wrong and bright, which lack the -ly we might expect from adverbs and which are unfairly condemned for that reason. The censure directed at them owes to the usual suspects:

[P]rescriptive grammarians in the 18th century, being overly attached to Latin grammar, thought flat adverbs were really adjectives being used incorrectly, and warned against their use. Before this, flat adverbs were more common and varied than they are now. Exceeding is a good example. If we browse Daniel Defoe’s writing we find such phrases as: weak and exceeding thirsty; it rained exceeding hard. Today this usage has an archaic feel.

Those early grammarians’ misguided judgements were passed down for generations. Their influence is felt today not only in the absence of many flat adverbs that were formerly routine, but also in the uncertainty and intolerance towards surviving ones…

What I mean by intolerance is, for example, people ‘fixing’ street signs that read Drive Slow, under the mistaken impression that it’s ungrammatical. In the post I also look briefly at whether and how some pairs of adverbs (one flat, one not) have diverged in usage, such as hard/hardly and safe/safely.

To browse my older Macmillan posts, you can visit the full archive here.

drive slow slowly grammar - weird al yankovic fixes road sign(Image from video: ‘Weird Al Yankovic fixes a road sign’)

Whom’s Law of Hypercorrection

December 6, 2014

I won’t subject readers to another long, rambling post on whom. But I want to note the tendency, strongest among those who are anxious to use whom “correctly”, to use it even when who would be generally considered the grammatically appropriate choice: as subject pronoun.

Ben Zimmer at Language Log recently criticised a book review at the New Yorker in which Nathan Heller wrote: “The glorious thing about the ‘who’ and ‘whom’ distinction is that it’s simple.” This is an easy assumption to make if your grasp of who/whom grammar owes to the oversimplified instructions of the many prescriptive guides that neglect to examine register* or the trickier possible cases.

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English 3.0, a short film about digital language use

November 16, 2014

English 3.0’ is a 20-minute video (embedded below) from documentary filmmaker Joe Gilbert about the effects of digital culture on language use and change, particularly English. The introductory voice-over asks:

Will abbreviations, crudely spelled words and a lack of consideration for grammar become the norm, or are these anxieties simply great plumes of hot air manifesting out of fear – fear of the new?

This question is addressed from various angles by a series of talking heads whose comments are for the most part informed and level-headed: in order of appearance, David Crystal, Fiona McPherson, Robert McCrum,* Tom Chatfield, and Simon Horobin.

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English 3.0 by Joe Gilbert, a short documentary film about digital language use

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Crystal, for example, reports on children’s use of abbreviations in text messages, which he analyses when visiting schools. Back in 2004 the abbreviation count was only about 10% on average; on a recent visit there were none at all. The students tell him they “used to do that” but it’s not cool anymore; one child, tellingly, stopped when his parents started.

Chatfield (whose excellent book Netymology I reviewed here) talks lucidly about various conventions in informal digital communication, characterising them as innovations which, like any technology, can be used skilfully or not. He believes talking about a decline in English “lets us off the hook, because it stops us from asking what it means to use new opportunities well or badly”:

We really need to be a little bit more sophisticated about this, and partly recognise that what people are doing is bending screen-based language to be more expressive rather than less. When you don’t have a human face there in person to convey emotional text and subtext, you tend to go above and beyond conventional standard English, conventional good grammar, in order to get your meaning across. You draw smiley or sad human faces out of punctuation; you use lots of exclamation marks; you use irony marks and asides; on Twitter you use hashtags. Now this isn’t for me bad grammar so much as good innovation when it’s done well.

The video could have done with more female voices – one woman out of five participants is not a very good balance – and subtitles would be a welcome addition especially for non-native-English speakers.

But compared with the last video about language that I featured on Sentence first, Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’, ‘English 3.0’ is a dose of fresh air, common sense, insight, and tolerance, and is well worth 20 minutes of your time.

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* Not McCrumb, as the video caption has it. This is why we need proofreaders.


An interview at Grammarist

October 7, 2014

I’ve been interviewed by Grammarist, a website specialising in words and language use. Among the topics addressed are the origins of Sentence first, whether blogging has changed language use, common mistakes, and how I would change the way people use language.

Here’s one Q&A item:

What is so interesting about language/grammar to you?

I’ve always been drawn to nature and biology, and language is one of its more compelling phenomena – not least because we use it to think and communicate with. As the Modest Mouse song goes, it’s the liquid that we’re all dissolved in. Once you start looking closely at language it opens up worlds of wonder, be it the complex choreography of speech or syntax or the transporting effects of a novel or poem. Sometimes language gets in our way, but it’s hard to imagine human life without it.

You can read the rest here. Despite my tendency to ramble I kept things fairly short and light. Comments are welcome at either location.

Grammarist has a good series of these interviews, with some names that I’m sure will be familiar to you. Anyone in the mood for even more can read earlier interviews I did for Copyediting newsletter and the WM Freelance Writers Connection.


Grammar references in ‘Gone Girl’

September 28, 2014

With David Fincher’s new film Gone Girl hitting the cinemas, it seems like a good time to mention the grammar references in the source novel by Gillian Flynn. (Also, I read it just a few weeks ago.) I counted three such references, quoted below.

Gillian Flynn - Gone Girl book coverIf you haven’t read Gone Girl and intend to read it or see the film, you might want to skip this post in case of spoilers. The book is an effective page-turner, and the less you know about how the plot unfolds, the better. If you have read it or don’t care about spoilers, read on.

The book has two unreliable narrators. First, here’s Amy, revealing herself to be self-conscious and pedantic about grammatical correctness and careful to avoid hypercorrection:

The woman remained in the car the whole time, a pacifiered toddler in her arms, watching her husband and me trade cash for keys. (That is the correct grammar, you know: her husband and me.)

Later, a secondary character says “the hoi polloi” and the other narrator, Nick, rejects the redundancy:

Just hoi polloi, I thought, not the hoi polloi. It was something Amy had taught me.

For the record: the hoi polloi is so common, and has such a strong literary pedigree (Byron, Dryden, et al.), that even prescriptivist authorities often permit it. But it remains a popular shibboleth in usage commentary and casual nitpickery.

The third and last example of grammar discussed in Gone Girl echoes the first. It contains a significant plot spoiler, so caveat lector. Amy again:

They say it’s important for Nick and me (the correct grammar) to have some time alone and heal.

I don’t know if any of these (or similar) items appear in the screenplay, which Flynn also wrote, but I’ll be interested to see if they do. If you plan on catching the film soon, enjoy.


Broadcast(ed), critical critiques, and twigging

September 23, 2014

Every other Monday I have a new post at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. It’s several weeks since I reported on this, so here are excerpts from, and links to, the last three.

Broadcast(ed) and forecast(ed) considers the variation in past tense forms of these sometimes-irregular verbs, and what their users and usage authorities have to say about them:

Most people use the shorter, uninflected past-tense forms forecast and broadcast, just as we say an actor was cast in a role, not *casted. Forecasted and broadcasted surged in popularity in the first half of the 20th century, but they are now minority usages.

Forecast and broadcast arose by adding a prefix to cast, and so the argument goes that we shouldn’t say forecasted or broadcasted any more than we would say *casted. But people who choose them may be verbing the nouns forecast and broadcast, independent of the cast–cast–cast paradigm. This would give them more licence to add the -ed suffix. [Read on]

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A critique of ‘criticism’ compares criticise and critique and their associated nouns – words with overlapping meanings but markedly different tones. I begin with criticise and criticism:

The two senses of these words – one judgemental and fault-finding, the other neutral and evaluative – exist side by side in modern English, though the balance is uneven. With set phrases like literary criticism and film criticism, the analytical sense is a given. But more often the word is used negatively (He can’t take criticism), and the same goes for criticise.

When we express an opinion, we usually want to avoid giving offence – and when we offer criticism, the chances of doing so are considerable. So language has many strategies for being polite. . . . Critique probably grew in popularity as a result of criticise gaining pejorative connotations. [Read on]

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Finally, Can you twig it? looks at an informal word of uncertain origins, and examines the possibility of an Irish etymology:

At an early age in Ireland I learned the Irish word tuig, meaning ‘understand’, often used in common phrases like An dtuigeann tú? (‘Do you understand?’). You can hear several regional pronunciations of the word at the excellent Irish dictionary website Foclóir.ie. Comparing tuig with twig we find they sound alike and mean similar things. Of course, this could simply be coincidental – but the correspondence, while inconclusive, is certainly suggestive.

Terence Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English says this Irish derivation for twig is possible, while Loreto Todd’s Green English says it ‘may well’ be the origin. Bernard Share’s Slanguage is less convinced, indicating instead that the two words have been confused. [Read on]

The full archive of my posts for Macmillan is available here.


Oxford commas, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen King

September 15, 2014

The Oxford comma (the one right before and in the title of this post) has been in the news again. It never really goes away, but now and then it intrudes more noticeably into general and specialist discussion. I’ve a couple of brief points to make about it, but anyone unsure of the terrain should first read my earlier post on the Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma, as it is variously known.

The Oxford comma is one of those in-group niceties that some wordsmiths use to mark their editorial or writerly identities. It has become a sort of tribal badge of style, reinforced by whether your preferred authority prescribes it – for example, the Chicago Manual of Style strongly recommends it, while the AP Stylebook says leave it out.

It’s remarkably divisive, so I’ll restate for the record that I’m not a die-hard Oxford comma user or leaver-outer. I like it, and I tend to use it, but not always. Neither its use nor its omission is a universal solution – ambiguity can arise either way, so it doesn’t make sense to be inflexible about it.

This tweet is a case in point:

@socratic tweet - oxford comma on mandela, 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector

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